The Houston Rockets’ star seemed determined to do anything he could to prolong their season.
James Harden scored as he always does. Harden defended as he recently has. And after the Rockets initially struggled with playing with energy, Harden displayed enough hustle to keep the engine running.
Still, the Rockets’ engine soon came to a complete halt. The Los Angeles Lakers eventually coasted to a 119-96 Game 5 win on Saturday, which cemented both the end to a five-game Western Conference semifinal and the third consecutive season the Rockets' championship aspirations became nothing more than a dream.
"It’s very, very frustrating, especially with the amount of work that I individually put in," Harden said after posting 30 points, six rebounds, five assists and six turnovers. "I’m going to keep chipping away and keep going until I can’t go anymore. I feel like we’re a piece away."
But as the Rockets approach this upcoming offseason, they encounter a future with more questions than answers. It seemed fitting considering Russell Westbrook wore a T-shirt with the phrase "Sky is Falling."
James Harden on where the Rockets stand after being eliminated: “We’re a piece away. We just got to keep trying to figure it out, keep trying to grow and put the right pieces around me and Russ.” #NBAPlayoffs
The first question: What will happen with coach Mike D’Antoni? Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told USA TODAY Sports last week that "Mike coming back is super important." But less than a year after both sides couldn't agree to an extension, D’Antoni will consider other head-coaching vacancies, too.
"I’d like to coach," D’Antoni said. "It’s not always up to me. But I want to continue coaching."
The second question? After spending this past season reunited with Russell Westbrook, Harden argued that the Rockets need "to keep the right pieces around with me and Russ to get to where we want to go." But by trading Chris Paul last summer to Oklahoma City for Westbrook, the Rockets lost plenty of their assets that could lead to an upgraded roster.
As part of that deal, the Rockets dealt a pair of first-round selections (2024, 2026) and pick swaps (2021, 2025) to the Thunder. While Harden and Westbrook are owed a combined $265 million through the next three seasons, the Rockets don’t have any cap room or any current draft picks.
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Though D’Antoni described Westbrook’s fit as "good" while he averaged 27.2 points on 47.2% shooting and improved the Rockets’ pace, he also showed limitations in various areas.
He shot only 25.8% from 3-point range with a team that prioritizes that area. He tested positive for COVID-19 before the Rockets departed for Orlando, resulting in a late arrival during the season ramp-up. After then describing himself as "in the best shape" upon his arrival, Westbrook then missed the last five seeding games and the first four playoff games because of an injured right quad. After returning for Game 5 of the Rockets’ first-round series against Oklahoma City, Westbrook averaged 17.9 points while shooting only 42.1% from the field and 24.2% from 3-point range while also averaging nearly as many turnovers (3.8) as assists (4.6)
"It wasn’t 100%, but I’m not the guy to make excuses," Westbrook said. "I love to compete. But it is what it is. Obviously an injury like this takes normally a couple of weeks."
The third question: Should the Rockets further commit to their small-ball philosophy?
They missed 27 consecutive 3-pointers in a decisive Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals. With center Clint Capela offering little rim protection in the team’s playoff matchups with Golden State, the Rockets soon decided not to even try to compete inside. So leading up to this year's trade deadline, the Rockets dealt Capela and acquired Robert Covington. After exerting their small-ball dominance against the Lakers in Game 1, the Rockets saw the Lakers beat them at their own game with their own small lineups.
"Ask the Lakers. That’s what they beat us with," D’Antoni said. "They were small. I know Golden State did a pretty good job with theirs. It’s way too early to assess that."
James Harden and the Rockets head into another uncertain offseason after losing in the second round. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill, AP)
Still, the Lakers’ small-ball lineups featured Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The Warriors’ small-ball lineups had four All-Stars (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) and a Finals MVP (Andre Iguodala). D’Antoni has a point, though. From the season restart through their Game 1 win over the Lakers, the Rockets ranked fifth in defensive rating (106.8) and eighth in total offense (110.6). In the last four losses to the Lakers? The Rockets averaged only 101.8 points and suffered in defensive rating (118.3).
"I feel like we never gave ourselves a chance," Harden said. "That’s on us. If we gave ourselves a chance and they beat us, we might need to switch it up or tweak something. But we never really gave ourselves a chance."
Some context is needed for D’Antoni, Westbrook and the state of the Rockets’ franchise.
The Rockets and D’Antoni failed to reach an agreement last season after he declined a one-year extension. D’Antoni willingly held lame-duck status because of his enthusiasm both for the Rockets’ potential and his optimism he would showcase his worth both to the Rockets and the open market.
"You always hate to lose. That’s always bittersweet. But I couldn’t ask for better people to work with and better players to work with," D’Antoni said. "A lot of things stand out. But I had great years, for sure."
Yet, those years could have been better had Rockets owner Tillman Ferttita not pressured the team to make moves because of luxury tax concerns. After losing in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the Rockets delined to retain Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute partly for financial reasons. They also traded De’Anthony Melton, a first-round and second-round pick and James Ennis for the same reasons. Yet, the Rockets still flourished partly because D’Antoni’s system has elevated Harden’s productivity and the role players around him. Without D’Antoni, the Rockets will likely have a diminished roster even if most return.
Hence, Harden’s endorsement on whether he wants D’Antoni back.
“Of course,” Harden said. “Mike has done some unbelievable things here. It hasn’t ended yet.”
Despite the Rockets’ latest loss, they still made the right move with acquiring Westbrook instead of keeping Paul. The reasons went beyond the tension that Paul and Harden had. It had more to with Paul’s failure to stay healthy. He strained his right hamstring toward the end of a Game 5 win in the 2018 Western Conference Finals and looking limited in the 2019 Western conference semifinals after missing a combined 17 games with a strained left hamstring. In related news, the Rockets lost to the Golden State Warriors in both of those playoff series.
Paul may have since resuscitated his career with the Thunder. Westbrook may have become the one that could not stay durable. And the Rockets may have mortgaged their long-term future. At the time, though, the Rockets were putting all their chips into winning a title. And before Westbrook’s injury, he played a large part with improving the Rockets’ pace and relieving Harden’s workload.
“He was great. He brings it every night,” D’Antoni said. “It was good. Again, you have to put everything in context. We were rolling. He was rolling. You have a layoff for 4 ½ months. You come back and this is not normal circumstances. So it’s even hard to judge some things.”
It may also become hard to judge the Rockets’ own philosophy. After missing 27 consecutive 3’s in a decisive Game 7 against Golden State in 2018, it has become easy to ridicule the Rockets’ system. But that development coincided with Paul’s injury against a Warriors team full of All-Stars. The Rockets’ latest implosion coincided with facing the Lakers’ stars while Westbrook was hurt and wingman Danuel House missing Game 5 after breaking the NBA’s health protocols by inviting a guest in his hotel room, a development Harden called “very very disappointing.”
“You have to have some luck. No doubt, it plays a part,” D’Antoni said. “I think what the Rockets would like to do and I would like to do as a coach is you get a chance. You would like to get a chance to win and get yourself a chance to win at the start of the year. A lot of times you fall short.”
Even Harden fell short amid the Lakers’ swarming defenses on him throughout the series.Harden at least showed, however, he did not shrink from playoff elimination games as he did when he averaged 23.8 points on 38 percent shooting and 6.7 turnovers in the previous six. But it became increasingly clear Harden cannot carry this team by himself. And he currently does not have the supporting cast to reach the next level.
“We’ll go back and assess and figure it out as a group,” Harden said. “We’re headed in the right direction.”
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